Julian Bussgang is the father of a close family friend of mine. We had met a few times, but never talked in depth. Before doing this project I had heard about his story but I was too intimidated to ask him about it. This project was the perfect opportunity to learn about his life. While talking to him I came to greatly admire him and all he has been through. Even after everything he has faced, he now had a wonderful life and a loving family. By doing this project I hope to show people how the life of an everyday person was changed dramatically by the war. This is the story of Julian Bussgang, as told and researched by me.
In the past, Poland had been one of the few places that accepted Jews and allowed them to continue to practice their religion in relative peace. The Jewish people first immigrated to Poland during the First Crusade in 1095. Poland’s economy had been going through a rough patch and the Polish government hoped the Jews could boost it. By this time the Jews had already earned a reputation for being very good at most things they tried to do, and Poland hoped they could utilize that to their benefit. The Jewish people lived in relative peace in Poland, with only the occasional pogrom. This was very unlike the experience of Jews in other countries, who had to deal with an almost constant stream of Anti-Semitism directed at them. It was in Poland where the Jews had some of the greatest achievements. The Hasid traditions were created there and the beginning of the Reform movement placed its roots there as well. Many of the Polish Jews had a safe, comfortable life until around 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland.
After World War One, Poland’s economy declined. It was hit with the same depression that was affecting the rest of the world. However, because of Poland’s proximity to Nazi Germany, people blamed the depression on the Jews. At this point in time most of the merchants and bankers were Jewish. they controlled the flow of money throughout the country. People became bitter and angry with them. With the second largest Jewish population in the world, it was no surprise that there was a rise in Anti-Semitism. There were waves of pogroms on the countryside; however the cities remained relatively untouched by it for a while. This was the case in the city of Lwów, where Julian Bussgang grew up.
Life in Poland:
Julian Bussgang was born in the city of Lwów. Lwów is located in the south-east corner of Poland and is the third largest city. In addition to this it had a large assimilated Jewish population. Mr.Bussgang and his family were occasionally affected by Anti-Semitism, but they dismissed it as ignorant people who did not know what they were talking about. Mr. Bussgang said, “There was some Anti-Semitism before the war, which was partly due to German, Nazi, influence…” This changed during the 1930’s when Hitler came into power. The effects of his propaganda were evident all around the city, but what happened at the university affected Mr. Bussgang the most. At first there were quotas of the number of Jews who were allowed into the University, and then the Jews that were allowed to go to the school were forced to sit on “ghetto benches” in the back of the classroom to keep them separate from the rest of the students. Many people refused to sit on those benches and chose instead to stand against the wall. In addition, some professors resigned in protest to the treatment to the Jewish students. There was a group of university students called the endeks who saw it as their personal mission to force the Jews to remain segregated. They attacked the students who refused to sit on the benches. It became dangerous for a Jewish person to walk alone on the street.
Life as a Refugee:
Mr. Bussgang and his family first went to Bucharest, which is the capital of Romania. Some Polish refugees had banded together to create a Polish high school, and he decided to go. Most people in the school were not Jewish refugees. They were the children of exiled government officials. After living in Romania for a short amount of time, Mr. Bussgang and his family decided that they wanted to leave Romania and go to Palestine. During this time period Palestine was establishing itself as a Jewish haven, and was attracting many Jews escaping from the clutches of Hitler. Palestine seemed like the best option for Mr. Bussgang and his family at the time, it was the one place they would not be persecuted for being Jewish. However, getting a visa was immensely difficult. Luckily Mr. Bussgang’s father had smuggled a few bars of gold into Romania, carrying them close to his person throughout the entire journey. This qualified him and his family for a less restricted “capitalist” category of visas. They all obtained visas and commenced moving to Palestine. They settled in the city of Tel Aviv. Mr. Bussgang completed his secondary education at the Polish High School in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Bussgang was still in Italy when the war ended in 1945. He was assigned to the British contingent operating a transit camp. He oversaw the transports of many people back to their home countries. This was also the receiving point for people freed from German labor camps. While working there he witnessed the survivors of the Mauthausen quarry-labor camp. Mr. Bussgang said, “It was horrible, no one had ever seen such cruelty done to human beings before”. Later, during the negotiations to distribute the land after the war, the Allies announced that eastern Poland, where Lwów was located, would be annexed into the Soviet Union. This meant that his former home was now under communist rule. The communists would not tolerate Mr. Bussgang because he was a capitalist. Many of the other Polish soldiers did not want to go back to communist Poland either. They had awful memories of the Russian labor camps, called gulags. There they were treated cruelly, given minimal food and forced to do hard labor. Many died and the ones who survived were fortunate to have done so. Mr. Busgang and the rest of the army now had to look for a new home as communist Poland would not accept him.
After the War:
After the war ended, the British did not know what to do with the Polish soldiers left in Italy. They acknowledged that they had helped tremendously in the war so they allowed those that had completed high school to enroll in an Italian university. Within a few months Mr. Bussgang had finished his first year of engineering. However, when the British wanted Italy to return to its pre-war state, all Polish citizens were evacuated. The Polish students were given a choice: they could either return to Poland or continue with their education in England. Mr.Bussgang chose to go to England. He went to the Polish University Collage, a temporary school created in order to qualify its students for the University of London.
In 1945 Mr.Bussgang had applied for a visa to immigrate to the United States. Four years later he was finally granted the visa and a displaced persons passport. He has lived in the United States ever since. He finished studying at M.I.T and moved on to Harvard. He never gave up. He told me that despite all he had been through, “The thing that kept me going was that I believed that… I would succeed no matter what”.
After interviewing Mr. Bussgang, I have a greater respect for the average people who's lives were changed dramatically by World War II. He became a hero in his own right by fighting for what he believed in. He is an amazing man and his story can speak to people of all generations. I am very grateful I had the chance to interview him for this project.
Bussgang, Julian. Personal interview. 10 Dec. 2010
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